Marina Abramovic’ – present continuous
There is something magnetising about Marina Abramovic’s face — a combination of strength and sensitivity with a touch of sadness and mystery. This is the face of the most documented performance artist of all times on account of the fact that her art is manifested by her body and has been a subject of endless films and photos. The buzz is growing as more people experience her current project “512 hours” in London. I was privileged to attend the intimate press preview, in which photography was allowed (during the show itself it is forbidden) and I am happy to share my experience with you.
An intimate encounter
My first close encounter with this unforgetable face occurred as I came out of the toilet in the Serpentine gallery before the press preview for her current project “512 hours”. There she stood, Marina Abramovic’, in front of the mirror, washing her hands. As I joined her, I looked at our joint images in the mirror, standing there alone in what seemed like a scene from a movie. Through the blur of excitement that flooded me I managed to say “hello”. “Chello” she replied with her heavy warm Serbian accent. And she left. That intimate undocumented moment is mine forever but by telling it I am actually manifesting the vision of Marina Abramovic’. For her, the audience generates her work as the performance lives on only by means of narrative — the spectator being not only a witness but also a participant. Watching Abramovic’ wash her hands brought to mind a text that describes her preparation rituals towards durational performances. These include simple, mundane actions that are done in total devotion and help create the total presence essential for the performance itself.
Marina Abramovic’ developed the concept of durational performance. Her longest show till now “The artist is present” occurred at the MoMA in 2010 and lasted two and a half months. The word “present” has a strong dual meaning for Abramovic’ as her method demands not only a physical presence but also total mental concentration in the present moment. This means clearing her mind of any thoughts on the past or the future and any other distractions. We all know how difficult that is. In the MoMA performance she sat on a chair during the museum opening hours and opposite her, on another chair, sat visitors that had waited for hours to exchange gazes with her. There was no time limit as Marina can gaze into your eyes for hours. Sometimes they cried and sometimes she cried. Her legs were swollen from lack of movement. She didn’t eat nor drink. After the project she retreated to recuperate in Brazil and now she is in London, pushing her limits even further. In her new project “512 hours” there is no chair — there actually is nothing and that’s the whole idea. No strategic plan, only a possibility. As says Abramovic’: “Out of nothing something may occur or may not”. The “nothing” she proposes is not a void but an energetically charged space created by the synergy between the artist’s energy and that of the visitors. Abramovic’ uses Tibetan and Shaman techniques to clear and purify her energy. In order to create the appropriate mental state, all visitors are required to undress, metaphorically. This means leaving their bags, cameras, telephones and watches in special lockers at the entrance to the show. One of the most disturbing things for Marina Abramovic’ is peoples’ incapability to be in the moment. Today we document and share everything in real time which takes our awareness away from the actual experience. “Only after it’s over do people look at their pictures to see what happened.”
The active spectator
Abramovic’ wants her audience to be present as she herself is. This is especially difficult in a world in which everything is documented. How else will we know it actually happened? I am already seeing how people try to overcome this limitation. They upload photos of the entrance to the show, of the instruction page and of the stamp on their wrists. We cannot live without our “likes”… But the experience itself is not to be shared and not experienced through any type of screen. One is expected to be present, both physically and mentally and become part of an ad hock community, connected by an energy field magnetized by Marina Abramovic’. She predicts that like in New York, there will be people who will return again and again for new experiences as each day and even each hour will be different. At the press preview Abramovic’ encouraged — “By all means”, she said, “come during the first month or the second but the last will be the most interesting”.
In the short demonstration she presented to the press, Marina created eye contact with a few people in the audience, approached him or her, took them by the hand and very slowly led them to different spots in the gallery. After whispering in their ear, she left them there. As I know a bit about the Marina Abramovic’ method, I made an effort to charge myself energetically in a way that will attract her attention and it worked! She made her way to me, smiled, took my hand and slowly led me to the wall. Facing it, she let go of my hand, placed her hand on my shoulder, paused and then whispered in my ear “ten minutes”. Then she moved on. So there I stood facing the wall, like a punished child and tried to be “in the moment”. I closed my eyes and opened them to see what it was transmitting to me but all I could really think about was what was going on behind my back. Quite a lesson in the difficulty of concentration. Two journalists approached me and asked me why I am standing there and what was it that she said to me. “Why indeed” I asked myself. Why do we do what we are told by default without questioning? (Well, it was Marina Abramovic’….) I didn’t have to but I was curious to experience “the moment” and to see how it felt. How long I stood there I can’t say as I didn’t have a watch but I didn’t last ten minutes, that’s for sure.
That was one example out of a rich repertoire of options that are available to Abramovic’ for her engagement with the visitors to come. Each day for 64 days she will open the door of the Serpentine gallery at 10am precisely and she will close it at 6pm. Then she will go to her rented apartment, to her awaiting staff that include a nutritionist, that will make sure that her nourishment before and after hours will enable her to keep up her strength for the full duration of the show. She also has a masseur and a Pilates instructor who will stretch her tired muscles and most importantly, she will take long relaxing baths with Dead Sea salts.
In a world that has transformed artists into brands that create “toys” for billionaires, the ephemeral art of Marina Abramovic’ is radical. Her work is anti materialistic and anti technological. Since the 1970’s she is involved with performance art and it is very much thanks to her that performance is acknowledged as an appreciated art form. Beyond her contribution of durational performance, another element that she has introduced is the interaction with the audience, transforming it from a passive state of spectating to an active role of participation in creating an artistic experience. In this respect, the art of Marina Abramovic’ raises questions about the vanity of traditional artworks, focusing entirely an egoistic expression of the artists themselves. Alternatively, the concept that Marina Abramovic’ suggests has no existence without the audience as a co-creator. It demands a humility that artists don’t usually have.
Abramovic’ omits the artwork from her art and reduces it to an energetic experience with a life span that matches the memory of whoever experienced it. She takes the concept of art to its most sensitive and controversial end, where the cynics are waiting to pounce and say that this is not art and what rubbish are you talking about. She doesn’t care. For her, the only failure she can experience is not being able to obtain the state of total presence for the full duration of her eight hour working day. This is what she has trained for during the last 25 years. Of course, nobody will know this except her.
Marina Abramovic’ will leave her ego outside the Serpentine gallery every morning at 10am. Then she will also disconnect from the realm of time until someone reminds her that it is time to go home. She invites the visitors to take from the experience she is enabling whatever they wish — whether it be a cynical objection or a total devotion. Everything is possible, everything is open within the nothingness she offers. One thing I can promise you — an encounter with Marina Abramovic’ is unforgettable.
“512 hours” is currently showing at the Serpentine gallery London until August 25th. Go if you can.